I used to work at a company owned by a married couple, and I witnessed them argue regularly in front of the staff. It was always really awkward, and seeing that, I vowed I would never work with my husband. That vow eventually went out the window as you can tell by the title of this article, but we managed to keep the ones we made on our wedding day. Do we still work together? No. But the time we did taught us some important lessons on partnership and leadership.
Mutual support is imperative
Before I started GoldieBlox, I was working at a full-time job, but I devoted every one of my nights and weekends to my dream of building a toy company that promoted STEM to girls. My husband, Beau, never questioned my dreams. He heard me when I said it was my life calling to inspire girls to pursue STEM, and he believed I could do it. In fact, Beau was the one who told me to pick a date I’d quit my day job to go all-in on GoldieBlox, put it on the calendar, and stick to it. Whenever I stalled or made excuses to push the date back, he’d nag me. He kept me accountable.
If it wasn’t for Beau’s support and encouragement, I don’t think I ever would have had the guts to take my entrepreneurial leap. In the early days, Beau was there every step of the way. He was my emotional rock when I got lonely. He was also a great sounding board for ideas, having started his own viral video production company a few years prior, so he had the business savvy to help me turn dreams into reality. He shot and edited our Kickstarter video in 2012, and it went viral. In the blink of an eye, we watched GoldieBlox go from a single prototype to a toy tens of thousands of people wanted to get their hands on. We were a dream team, and we wholeheartedly believed in each other’s abilities to bring GoldieBlox’s mission to the masses.
Try things out
After seeing everything Beau was doing to make GoldieBlox a success, my best friend (and, incidentally, my first employee) begged me to hire Beau. Beau and I were both skeptical but decided to do a three-month trial. He’d spend two days a week at the office and three days working on his own projects. Well, two days a week turned into three. Then, three turned into five. I still had my doubts, but, honestly, we were having so much fun. Those first three months were full of wins that kept us working hard.
At the end of three months, it was obvious that Beau had to come on full-time. We gave him the job title “Lightning Bottler” because of his viral superpower to make lightning strike not once but repeatedly. That trial period allowed me to see we could work together without ruining our marriage, and that his contributions were necessary to make the company the best it could be.
Acknowledge the awkwardness
It seemed like overnight I was thrust into the spotlight. I knew how integral Beau was to the company, and how much time and energy he was sacrificing to work there, but that’s not how the press, or even our family, looked at it. Everywhere I went, people asked me about GoldieBlox, or congratulated me on its success, never acknowledging or realizing how much Beau had contributed. Beau never made me feel bad about this, but I always felt it was unfair. I was quick to point out how much Beau did and never let him feel like he didn’t matter—but I can’t say the lopsided focus in attention didn’t wear on us.
At the same time, running a high growth startup in an industry neither of us had any experience in was a challenge, to say the least. Beau constantly had to come up with solutions to new challenges without a playbook. And my role, as his boss, was to sign off on each answer. If I didn’t agree with his solution, it spilled over into our home life. That meant we were now arguing all the time. When we’d go out on weekends, our friends would ask about work, so there we’d be, hashing out operations problems on the days of the week we didn’t have to be in the office.
Beau and I were always honest with one another throughout the uncomfortable moments because if we swept them under the rug, they’d have a way of getting out in some other situation, whether it be at work, at home, or with friends. We had to be constantly checking in with each other, or our relationship—work or otherwise—wouldn’t have succeeded.
Make your partner a real partner
Beau’s skills in viral video literally put GoldieBlox on the map, and understandably he wanted to feel like an equal partner. However, there was a part of me deep down that liked the narrative of me being a sole founder, inventing GoldieBlox alone in my living room. Eventually, I had to get over my own ego, part of which was finding ways to publicly acknowledge Beau for his contributions and give him more ownership—both literal and symbolic. A couple of years into his tenure at GoldieBlox, I retroactively named him cofounder and offered him a seat on our board of directors, both positions that were well earned and deserved. Once these changes had been put in place, we worked in harmony—both of us taking immense pride in our creation.
Know when to end things, even if it’s hard
Over time, I could see Beau was craving something different. He needed a job where he could use his passions to create something without my constant oversight. He wanted autonomy again. And even though everything we’d created was incredible, I could tell he felt it wasn’t entirely his.
Here’s a secret about Beau: he is deeply passionate about rap music and has a nerdy history of bridging hip-hop culture with tech culture. I watched as his hobby became his passion, just as GoldieBlox had for me. When Beau spent a year of nights and weekends working on a hip-hop musical about Silicon Valley called Rhyme Combinator, we both realized he needed to follow his dreams. And I needed to give him the space to do that just as he had done for me.
Though Beau and I haven’t worked together in a while, I have no regrets about breaking my vow to never work with my husband. I love that some of the most exciting times in my life were spent alongside my best friend. From working a dilapidated booth at toy fairs to riding floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we achieved the impossible together. Even through the tense moments, we had the time of our lives, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything.
Debbie Sterling is the CEO and founder of GoldieBlox.